In December 2015, President Obama signed the Microbeads Free Waters Act, banning the use of plastic microbeads used as exfoliants in personal care products. As a previous director of the organization that first helped uncover this issue, I continue to be astonished by the massive amounts of plastic pollution that originate from a seemingly innocent act: washing our collective faces.
Winning on microbeads took a huge, national coalition of NGOs with a united strategic plan. The next iteration of that work has a new target: microfibers that come from washing synthetic clothing in washing machines.
Oceanic gyres tend to eviscerate big plastics into smaller bits, and washing machines do the same — and even more efficiently. When you wash clothing made from synthetic materials such as polyester, tiny particles of plastic called microfibers are washed down the drain with the washing machine effluent. Microfiber pollution is one of the biggest sources of primary microplastic pollution. In a recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report, washing clothing was found to be responsible for 33 percent of primary microplastic releases into the environment. Compare that to the effect of microbeads, which were banned for their paltry 2 percent contribution to watershed microplastic pollution.
For clothing brands, microfiber pollution represents an existential threat to their bottom line, and for outdoor companies, their pro-environment reputations.
Why? Because fossil-fuel-derived, plastic textiles are becoming the go-to fabric of choice for sports and active lifestyle brands due to their performance attributes. Already, 60 percent of all clothing on earth is made of polyester, with even higher occurrences in activewear brands. But whether it’s yoga pants, fleece jackets or underwear, plastic clothes are the new normal — and are shedding massive amounts of persistent plastic pollutants into our shared waters and soil. Unfortunately, with increasing demand for synthetic fabrics, the problem is at risk of getting even worse.
To give an idea of scale, it’s estimated more than 1.4 million trillion fibers are awash in the ocean, a number derived by George Leonard, chief scientist for the Ocean Conservancy, based on an extrapolation from existing data. Now, consider that government data shows more than 103 million washing machines are in the United States doing an average of eight to 10 loads of laundry per week. According to the scientific literature, each load can release between 1,900 fibers per load, to as many as 250,000 per fleece jacket, per wash.
Microfibers are a huge source of pollution, but are they dangerous?
It’s seriously doubtful we’re going to see a scientific study that demonstrates that animals eating plastic is a good thing. As such, many scientists agree there is cause for alarm and that a solution must be found.
What we do know is that plankton, mussels and clams eat fibers and can cause gut impaction and other serious digestive tract problems. We know one in four fish procured from a fish market in California has evidence of microfiber ingestion. We also know microfibers will attract and concentrate (up to a million times greater toxicity) other chemical pollutants present in water, and that after ingestion these toxins can leach from the plastic into an organism’s tissues. Some clothing is also treated with dangerous chemicals that will desorb into water over time as well.
So, although we don’t know the ultimate human health connection implications yet from eating sea life, we know that larger organisms eat smaller ones, and that pollutants thus magnify up the food chain.
So what are clothing brands doing about it?
Forward-thinking brands have acknowledged microfiber pollution is real, and apparel company Patagonia has commissioned a study to look at their products’ contributions to the problem. But few brands have made any significant progress on mitigating their products’ impact on the environment.
In the six years since the first seminal study demonstrating microfiber pollution was published, no clothing company has abandoned synthetic fibers for use in their products. Instead, we’ve seen an increased use of synthetic textiles, especially polyester. Brands love polyester and other synthetics for their performance attributes: they repel water, wick sweat, and the fabric stretches without getting stretched out. Although cheap to produce, polyester is twice as carbon-intensive than the next most carbon-intensive material, cotton.
Some brands, recognizing a way to solve the carbon problem, thought making clothing out of recycled plastic water and soda bottles would be a good idea. This became an overall trend for “green activewear” brands to tell a sustainability story. Although these efforts are well-intentioned, the effect on water and soil remains the same with regard to microfiber pollution.
As is often the case with so many environmental problems, the first solutions are ones that encourage individual actions and technical quick fixes over more complicated, systemic interventions. Although we at The Story of Stuff Project absolutely appreciate innovation and individuals’ desire to “do good” in the world, we’ve been in the environmental advocacy sphere long enough to be skeptical of “sexy” tech fixes that attempt to frame an issue as being solved “if we all just do our part.”
Does anyone really think retrofitting 103 million washing machines in the United States alone is practical? Here are my thoughts on some solutions proposed so far:
- Wash your synthetic clothes less. We have to clean clothes eventually, which seems to indicate that clothing brands are still OK with some amount of fibers going into the environment. This strategy doesn’t address the systemic problem and places the burden on the consumer.
- Put a filter in a washing machine. Again, this is the clothing industry looking for another industry to solve its problem. Technically, it’s difficult to put a filter inside a washing machine because the fibers it catches are so fine they end up stopping the machine from draining properly. This observation comes directly from the mouths of product developers at General Electric, with whom I’ve spoken at length.
- Put a filter outside of the washing machine. This could work, but how on earth would you ever enforce it? This task seems just as hard as campaigning against all textile manufacturers, and again, it puts the burden on the public, not the producer.
- Use a filter bag inside the machine. Recently, there has been a lot in the press around the Guppy Friend, a bag designed to stop microfiber solution by washing synthetic fabrics within the bag. This is a pretty cool stop-gap measure that allows citizens to “do something.” I’d like this better if industry was subsidizing the cost of the bag and giving it away at point of purchase, rather than “hoping” people will buy them.
- Put a fiber collector or innovative detergent in the machine. This may have some promise, but again, how could anyone enforce this? Maybe a detergent could be invented that works as a coagulating agent that grabs all the fibers and leaves a ball of fibers at the end of a cycle. I’m spitballing, but if such a thing could be invented, you’d have to legislate that all detergent sold does this — and we’d need clothing companies to pay for the R&D that creates the product and support the legislative battle to pass the policy. Judging by how hard plastic-microbeads-loving companies fought common sense legislation, this would be very difficult to achieve.
- Stop using synthetic fabrics. There are fabrics from natural sources that could be used more widely — bamboo, for example, can be spun into fabric in a closed loop system (where chemicals used to break down the cellulosic fiber into a usable form are captured, re-used and never enter the environment). Bamboo has a lot of pluses, and also has many of the performance attributes that polyester does.
- Update all developed country sewage treatment to tertiary filtration with the final effluent treated by cloth filters before it’s discharged. Yes, this ultimately could stop fibers from getting into watersheds but it would require billions of dollars of infrastructure spending, and it raises other issues, such as what to do about biosolids. The only way to make this work equitably would be to pass laws that require clothing manufacturers to pay a portion of their revenue, based on size, to a fund the updates the treatment process and offset the loss of revenue derived from selling fertilizers. There are several jurisdictional barriers to work through, but what concerns me most is that eventually, a litigation-oriented nonprofit likely will sue wastewater agencies for discharging plastic fibers in violation of the Clean Water Act or some other nuanced legal theory.
- Coat textiles with a treatment that prevents shedding. This is an interesting idea some clothing brands are assessing. Many questions remain, namely: How long would a coating last? Is the coating environmentally benign? However difficult, this is the solution I like the most so far, because it puts the burden of solving the pollution problem on the front end and on the industry responsible for creating the problem in the first place.
It’s clear that many concerned companies examining the microplastics problem associated with clothes are still in the “head scratching” phase. No clothing brand intended for their synthetic products to be discharged into the environment. Now that they know, they must step up and tackle the problem. As advocates and concerned citizens, we must work hard to listen to the brands but also to guide their proposed solutions and push for systemic fixes.
*This story first appeared on GreenBiz
Studies in Canada show that microfibers used in garments such as yoga pants have become a huge threat to aquatic life. Microfibers made up 95 percent of the plastic pollution in waterways as compared to microbeads which constituted only 5 percent.
Many of the developed nations have proposed regulations to ban the sale of microbeads in toiletries because of the risk they pose to aquatic and marine environments.
But now it appears that a different type of microplastic is becoming a growing threat to aquatic animals.
Findings of a recent research conducted by scientists from Carleton University, Ontario show that most of the microplastics recovered from the Ottawa River and its tributaries were from microfibers rather than microbeads.
Jesse Vermaire, assistant professor of environmental science, geography and environmental studies at Carleton University said:
What really surprised us is that we found plastic particles in every single water and sediment sample we took, so the plastic was really prevalent in the river system. As much as 95 per cent of the plastic in the water samples collected by Vermaire and the Ottawa Riverkeepers was made up of microfibers. Around five per cent of the plastic was made up of micobeads. A lot of them are coming from synthetic clothing.
Yoga pants, fleece-type jackets, athletic wear and other garments made from synthetic materials contain microscopic plastic fibers — called “microfibers”. Every time you run your washing machine, hundreds of thousands of microfibers are flushed down the drain into natural waterways, eventually reaching the sea and into the food chain.
Ingesting microplastics over a period of time makes animals feel full, meaning many later die of starvation.
Some companies have already started to suggest interim solutions, such as washing synthetics less or capturing the fibers with filters, But a larger, systemic solution, such as new fabric formulations can only be a permanent solution.
*This story first appeared on Digital Journal
The US may be Releasing over 64,000 pounds of Tiny Synthetic Clothing Fibers into the Water Everyday
Beginning July 1, 2017, the US will start phasing out soaps and cosmetics that include microbeads, the tiny pieces of plastic often used in soaps to help exfoliate the skin.
The ban comes after research showed the beads are often too small to get filtered by wastewater treatment plants. That means they can can end up in oceans and rivers, where marine animals wind up ingesting them, in turn causing the beads to be incorporated into our food chain. But microbeads are just one form of microplastics, a broader category that also includes tiny fibers that come off synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon.
Because these microfibers are less than a fifth of an inch long, many of them also get through the filters in treatment plants, yet so far there haven’t been any governmental efforts to regulate them. A recent study commissioned by outdoor clothing company Patagonia suggests we could be sending a shocking amount of these fibers — more than 64,000 pounds — into oceans and streams each day.
“Anything from plankton all the way up to whales have been found to have microfibers in their systems,” says Bess Ruff, a project researcher at U.C. Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, which published a study of microfiber pollution in Environmental Science & Technology in September.
The study was conducted by a research team of five graduate students overseen by Patricia Holden, a professor of environmental microbiology. To calculate the amount of fibers that gets released into our water system, the team tested four different types of synthetic Patagonia jackets and one budget fleece (a lower-end version that competes with Patagonia). Each was put in two kinds of washing machines — top-load and front-load — and then the runoff water from the loads was filtered through a uniquely designed column made to collect the fibers.
The team weighed the fibers, calculated how much gets shed in an average wash, and extrapolated that data for a city of 100,000 people. The group determined that wastewater treatment plants can filter out 65-92% of the microfibers in water, which means means every 100,000 people send between 19 and 242 pounds of microfibers into the water each day. (That large range also accounts for the quality of clothing, the type of washing machine, and the age of the items.)
That means the entire US population could be releasing more than 750,000 pounds of tiny fibers into the water daily. And that doesn’t include the microfibers that get filtered and incorporated into solid waste that water treatment plants collect, which is sometimes repurposed as fertilizer for farms.
Even the study’s low estimate — 64,000 pounds of microfibers each day — is surprisingly high.
According to Ruff and the Bren research team, microfiber pollution is troubling on two levels. First, it means that animals considered to be filter feeders, which eat by straining food particles out of water, are directly intaking the fibers. That category includes oysters and mussels, so the fibers could actually be in the tissue that humans eat.
Second, synthetic fibers (unlike natural ones like wool or cotton) are prone to absorbing chemicals. That means microfibers could potentially pick up chemicals while they travel through wastewater treatment plants, or that they could make it into oceans or streams carrying the chemicals originally added to the clothing they came from.
“You have odor-resistant chemicals applied, water-resistant chemicals applied, and those are inside the fibers,” Ruff says. “When they get consumed, these chemicals can be transferred to tissue of organisms that eat them.”
In other words, even if the fibers go into the parts of a fish that humans don’t typically eat — like the stomach or intestines — those chemicals could still get into the tissue we consume.
The amount that humans would ingest is tiny. But Ruff says large quantities of the most commonly found chemicals on microfibers have been shown to cause issues with the endocrine system, neurological development, and cancer. Researchers are also beginning to look into the chemicals’ impacts on smaller animals.
“There have been some studies on filter feeders where they’ve been shown to produce fewer eggs, smaller eggs and slower sperm, so you’re having a lower output of larvae,” she says. “It’s impacting the population. We don’t know how drastically or if it’s a long-term impact, but there have been noticeable changes in the physiology of these organisms from consuming fibers.”
That’s especially troubling to Patagonia, since many of its jackets and fleeces are made of synthetic materials and lots of its customers care deeply about the environment.
Since the results of the study were released, Elissa Loughman, manager of product responsibility at Patagonia, has been trying to figure out the best action for the company to take. An important first step, she says is “identifying fabrics and fibers that either shed a lot or shed less, understanding that, and then make decisions internally to minimize the use of those fabrics and fibers that shed more.”
Patagonia is also now working with a team at North Carolina State University to devise a test that clothing companies could use in their labs to learn about microfiber shedding when trying out a new material.
“The idea is that there could be another test that everyone could do in their standardized test tabs that would identify the shedding potential prior to actually choosing to put a fiber or a fabric to use in a product,” she explains.
Loughman adds that the problem has to be addressed at many levels — washing machine manufacturers can do their parts, too, and there are several ways eco-conscious consumers can decrease their microfiber pollution. Septic tank filters can be effective at catching microfibers when used in home washing machines, and a nonprofit called the Rozalia Project, which is devoted to keeping the oceans clean, is developing a ball that can catch microfibers in the wash.
Those who have a choice of washing machines should also opt for front-load ones instead of top-load ones, since the Bren study found that top-load machines create 5.3 times more fiber shedding. Ruff says the researchers still aren’t sure why this is the case, but think it has to do with the machines’ central agitator, which creates friction by grinding against the clothes. Front-load machines, on the other hand, just move the clothes against themselves.
But the easiest thing people can do, Ruff says, is just wash clothing less. Loughman says that’s a message Patagonia can get behind.
“Patagonia is an outdoorsy company and we sort of pride ourselves on getting dirty and staying dirty sometimes,” she says. “So having dirty clothes is kind of funny, and actually part of a solution to this.”
*This story first appeared on Business Insider